Alwar lynching case: BJP caught between pushing development agenda and playing to the tunes of its voter base

It’s not exactly a secret that vigilantism has spiked since the current dispensation took over at the Centre in 2014. It has also been established, beyond reasonable doubt, that Muslims, and to a lesser extent Dalits, have borne the brunt of vigilante attacks, because, since 2014, a large number of lynchings have been directed against people suspected of carrying or storing beef, or transporting cows or buffaloes for slaughter and consumption.

Representational image. AFP

Representational image. AFP

Statistics compiled by various independent bodies—which some will no doubt dismiss as ‘fake news’—and media reports suggest 97 percent of attacks relating in some way to cows occurred after 2014. Around 85 percent of those killed were Muslim and 52 percent of those targetted (between 2010 and 2017) were also Muslim. Economist and commentator Rupa Subramanya concluded from data sets she compiled from media reports that there is a definite upward trend in ‘cow vigilantism’ since 2014.

This kind of vigilantism is fracturing Indian society, and political and economic systems. It is pushing marginalised groups, Muslims, other minorities, Dalits and tribals, further to the periphery by first restricting their dietary options (and preferences) and livelihoods, and then subverting constitutionally-mandated rights, including, most egregiously, the right to life and property. If the Centre and Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) governments in the states are not exactly complicit, they have shown an unacceptable disregard for the seriousness of the problem.

The most recent vigilante attack in Alwar, in which a young man was killed for the crime of buying cows and transporting them for his dairy farm, highlights both the complicity and callousness of the police, though in this case the Rajasthan government cannot be directly blamed. What is certainly a big factor, though, is the ‘culture of impunity’ that has been spawned by the actions and statements, or the lack of them, of governments and ‘responsible’ members of governments.

There is another practical side to this subversion of democratic institutions and processes, and an atmosphere in which normal life cannot be led. It is ironic that the present government should advertise its credentials as one committed to development and economic growth, while winking at vigilantism and other actions that destabilise the routine tenour of national life and progress. A recent study of the 20th Century, by researchers in the UK and US, found that ‘secularisation’—a shift away from religiosity—preceded spikes in economic growth.

It would, of course, be irrational to expect that Indians will suddenly become ‘rational’: Jettisoning religion to better themselves economically. In any case, this kind of a change is a historically contingent process. But it would not be irrational to expect governments to act rationally, vis-à-vis religion and other matters, to secularise itself and its workings to facilitate economic growth, livelihood security and, in general, better material prospects of the citizens who vote it to power and whom they, theoretically, represent.

Reactions to cow vigilantism, and ratcheted up legislation, rules and punitive measures against cow slaughter and the movement and sale of bovine species, the latter suspended by the Supreme Court and then abandoned, is not evidence of rational governance. It is not the case, it should be recalled, that the ban on cow slaughter in most states is an invention of the BJP. Cow slaughter was banned long before the BJP came into existence by Congress governments.

It can be argued that it was the Constituent Assembly, not the Hindu Mahasabha (the ideological forebearer of the Bharatiya Jana Sangh and the BJP) that made the ban on cow slaughter one of the non-justiciable ‘Directive Principles of State Policy’ in the Constitution, though few remember that this was part of a provision aimed at organising ‘agriculture and animal husbandry on modern and scientific lines’ (see Indian Constitution, Part IV, Article 48).

There was nothing categorical in the injunction, but the Hindu Right (as a larger formation embracing parts of many entities) turned it into dogma, even when it militated against organising animal husbandry on ‘modern and scientific lines’ and, we may add, on an economically and ecologically-sustainable basis. And BJP governments expanded the ambit of existing legislation and made punitive measures more stringent. Thus, in a number of states, even being in the possession of beef or selling it became a crime, no matter where the cows were slaughtered.

Some statistics and reportage suggest that the meat and leather industries, which contribute significantly to India’s export basket, have been hit by the stringent provisions of the new cow-slaughter legislation and vigilante attacks on not just those transporting cows, never mind for what purpose, but those caught flaying bovine carcasses, never mind how the animals died in the first place.

Thus, for instance, the rupee value of leather exports, which more than doubled between 2010-11 and 2014-15, fell consecutively for the next two years. Media reports show the domestic consumption of beef and its export has fallen since 2014, though the secular trend is not definitive. For instance, between 2010 and 2013, there was a steep fall in consumption. Since then, the recovery has been slow.

Vigilantism and the intensified government policy against cow slaughter has an adverse impact on the agrarian economy too. Cows or buffaloes are economically useful as milch or draught animals for a short span of their lives. After they stop yielding milk or become too old to pull anything, they become an economic liability. Most farmers in India are middle, small or marginal peasants who cannot afford the upkeep of unproductive assets. They thus sell the old cattle, usually as part payment for new calves or cows/buffaloes.

Laws, rules and vigilantism, thus, hit not just the already reeling agricultural sector, but also the pastoral economy. It has been estimated that 45 percent of rural households own cattle; of these, 71 percent own one head of cattle and 21 percent two. Cattle as a supplementary resource, and obviously for pastoralist the primary one, is invaluable. Any attack on the bovine economy, for whatever reason, can be catastrophic.

It is not very tough to see that the BJP is caught in a cleft stick, trying to navigate between its growth agenda and a nativist, obscurantist, divisive and exclusionary one: Which a section of its constituency (not the Indian people) cherishes. It will take statesmanship of the kind former prime minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee practised to resolve this fundamental contradiction.

Updated Date: Jul 27, 2018 20:27 PM

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